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Pima County Sheriff's deputies to get body-worn cameras

Supervisors OK new gear under 10-year, $26M contract

Pima County Sheriff's Deputies will be equipped with body-worn cameras after the county Board of Supervisors approved a 10-year contract worth $26.5 million for the devices, along with a program to buy new Tasers.

In a unanimous vote, the board approved the purchase of 800 cameras, as well as software and cloud storage for recorded videos from the Scottsdale-based Axon Enterprises. The supervisors also agreed to buy 800 new Tasers, replacing the county's equipment with a newer model in a bright yellow casing designed make it harder to confuse the "less-lethal" weapon with a firearm.

The contract will cover the purchases, as well as cloud storage for videos over the next 10 years.

Axon was once known as Taser, and known for the line of "electroshock" weapons often used by police as a "less-lethal" alternative to guns. However, in 2017, the company rebranded itself around its expanding line of video cameras for police officers.

The Sheriff's Department follows Tucson Police Department which began using body-worn cameras in 2015 after purchasing 70 of the devices, and Oro Valley police equipped a few officers with cameras as early as 2012.

In August, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that it would outfit agents and officers with nearly 4,000 body-worn cameras from Axon as part of a $31 million contract. Officials said the purchase would “better enhance” the agency’s policing practices and “reinforce trust and transparency.”

In recent years, body-worn cameras have given the public an up-close view of the police officers' actions. Earlier this year, a body-worn camera showed how Tucson Police Officer Danny Leon responded during a violent confrontation, shooting and fatally wounding Leslie Scarlett after he rammed Leon's patrol vehicle and shot at him.

And last summer, body-worn cameras showed how three Tucson Police officers restrained a man for several minutes, holding him to the ground and covering his face with a "spit sock," actions that killed 27-year-old Carlos Ingram-Lopez.

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In 2016, nearly half of all law enforcement agencies had some body-worn cameras, and 69 percent had dashboard cameras, according to a Justice Department study. The Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington D.C-based think tank that focuses on law enforcement, recommended body-worn cameras, writing that they can "help improve the high-quality public service expected of police officers and promote the perceived legitimacy and sense of procedural justice that communities have about their police departments." 

"Furthermore, departments that are already deploying body-worn cameras tell us that the presence of cameras often improves the performance of officers as well as the conduct of the community members who are recorded," the group wrote. "This is an important advance in policing."

"Body-worn cameras can increase accountability, but police agencies also must find a way to preserve the informal and unique relationships between police officers and community members," the group said, and warned that police agencies must outline how to use the cameras well, and how to design policies around their use. "If police departments deploy body-worn cameras without well-designed policies, practices, and training of officers to back up the initiative, departments will inevitably find themselves caught in difficult public battles that will undermine public trust in the police rather than increasing community support for the police," the group wrote.

A 4-year study of the Tempe Police Department published in 2020 found that body-worn cameras did not decrease use of force incidents among regular patrol officers, but did decrease incidents among the department's specialized units, such as K9, SWAT, and bicycle patrol officers.

During the Board of Supervisors meeting, Board Chair Sharon Bronson asked for a second to push the purchase through as part of the consent agenda. Supervisor Rex Scott agreed to second her motion just before Supervisor Steve Christy. "I think Supervisor Scott beat you to the punch, Supervisor Christy," said Bronson.

Christy began by questioning the expenditure, and asked if the cameras could be funded through a grant rather than the general fund. Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry outlined the expenditure, noting that the county was replacing Tasers already in use by the Sheriff's Department because they were at the end of their useful life, and the newer models are "a more modern piece of equipment" that provide "a little bit better safety." 

"I think these new tasers are clearly identified with the yellow casing so that it's going to be very difficult to mistake a weapon for a Taser," Huckelberry said. He added that some of the Tasers were going into the adult detention center.

"With regard to cameras this is the first use of body-worn cameras that will be attached to all enforcement officers as well as probably a number of individuals in the detention facility, so it's a significant expansion from what they've done in the past," he said. "The cost is, is what it is, it's expensive, but I believe the Sheriff believes it's necessary."

Huckelberry said the expenditure was a "sole-source" purchase, and the county selected Axon in part because other agencies in Pima County use the same system, making it easier to exchange information between agencies, and prosecutors.

Christy said he was "disappointed"  that the county didn't pursue a grant, and Huckelberry responded that Sheriff Chris Nanos had sought to accelerate the purchase and get cameras as quickly as possible, "given his election and taking office in January."

During last year's election Nanos supported body-worn cameras, and this August he told TucsonSentinel.com that he wanted more funding for body-worn cameras from the governor's office. Incidents across the nation—including the 2020 death of George Floyd—showed the necessity of the devices for police work, he said.

Later, Christy said that in fact the county sought grants for body-worn cameras, but none were available. "So, the effort was made to secure grants and maybe as you pointed out, down the road, we'll be able to secure grants for other items. But this, this particular one, it was researched and no grants are available out on this," Christy said.

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Axon Enterprises

A police officer wearing a body-worn camera, and a Taser produced by the Scottsdale-based Axon Enterprises.